In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.
Paul Watkins is the newest member of the illustrious Emerson String Quartet. Winner of the 2002 Leeds Competition, Watkins was appointed Principal Cellist of the BBC Symphony at the age of twenty. Andrew Clements of The Guardian wrote, "Britain's finest cellist, Watkins' account [of the Elgar Concerto] seems the best to have appeared on disc for years. It has intensity, presence and warmth, which never topples over into sentimentality,". This Sunday, Music@Menlo presents the Emerson String Quartet in works of Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Shostakovich (ticket & program information). Below is a transcript of our October 8, 2013 conversation with cellist Paul Watkins.
EH: I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of classical music today. How do you convince a new generation of youths of the importance of creativity and the strength of the musical traditions ?
Watkins: I think classical music is, in many ways, as strong as it ever was. Now, some people might think that’s a rather naïve comment, especially in the light of American orchestras and opera companies having difficult times, sometimes even to survive. I have the opportunity to play all over the world, and in my travels, I see tremendous interest amongst all generations in great music. This music still has the ability to speak very directly to people of all ages. It’s certainly not what our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, once said about it, that it was something you come to once you’re past the age of fifty (laughs).
EH: You were the winner of the 2002 Leeds competition. What are your thoughts on young artists, the aesthetics of today’s sound being affected by the rigors and demands of competitions and recording studios ?
Watkins: I think there is certainly a trend amongst the kinds of artists who win competitions – they obviously play with great technical command, virtuosity and ease, but perhaps a certain lack of individuality. On the other hand, there are plenty of young artists emerging today with enormous amounts of individuality. You only have to think of the incredible Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, who’s in his thirties. Another example, cellist Nicholas Altstaedt, who’s doing a lot in the States, especially with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. These are highly individual players, and they are coming through, maybe in spite of competitions (laughs).
I’ve sat on the juries of a few competitions over the last few years. I was the token non-violinist jury member of the Menuhin violin competition, which took place in Cardiff, Wales, which is my home-country. There were a number of players who had outstanding abilities, which we expected, but the one who impressed us was the American, Chad Hoopes, who I believe is from the mid-West. He sang his own song, someone who hadn’t really been shackled by the demands of the competition. I think these people do emerge. Highly individual voices in the world of instrumental art are rare, but they do exist, and I don’t think competitions have much of a detrimental effect on them.
EH: Which of the great cellists of the Golden Age have made the greatest impression on you ? Whose recordings do you most often find yourself returning to ?
Watkins: I moved to the New York area this year, and one of the big jobs I’ve had has been to unpack my rather large collection of compact discs (laughs) – I’ve got about a thousand or so. I’m going to give the same answer that my illustrious predecessor, David Finckel, would give. By far the greatest number of recordings I have are those of Rostropovich. He simply cannot be ignored. He is the giant of the cello in the twentieth century. The next largest number of albums I own are those of Steven Isserlis, who again, going back to your previous question, is one of the most individual string-voices playing today. He is one of those who, as soon as you turn on the radio, you can tell it’s him. Now, if you’re going back to the 30’s, 40s’, and 50’s, one of the cellists who influenced me as a teen was Paul Tortelier. He was the first, so-called great cellist I heard in live performance, and he still holds a special place in my heart.
EH: I was listening to your recording of the Elgar concerto with the BBC Philharmonic this morning – it is truly something else. Can you describe what goes through your mind, what are you picturing when you’re performing this work ? Is there a particular movement that speaks to you more than the others ?
Watkins: Thank you! I have to say, when one is making a studio recording – and I believe many musicians will agree – it’s really a battle between the emotions and the intellect. The intellect monitors one’s technical performance, because the microphones are there and they’re merciless (laughs), but the emotional side, for me, is the one that must win. One must be free to let the music creep up and steal you away. And this was constantly what I was aiming for during the recording of this piece, really. I’ve known the piece since I was nine or ten years-old, and putting it down in my early forties was a big moment for me, a big responsibility. I was very aware and I wanted to be as free as possible, to find in as many measures of the piece as possible, the most immediate gut response.
I think the two parts for me would be the slow movement and the coda in the last movement, which are so deeply felt. The composer really exposes his heart on his sleeve, in a way that is just so raw. It’s almost painful. I try to find as many takes as possible where I can access this and not worry too much about the technical aspects of making a record.
EH: Elgar certainly found a way to organize the pain he experienced in those years. In your opinion, does an artist have to be of deeply profound character and knowledge in order for an audience to feel that something worthwhile and unique is being revealed on stage ?
Watkins: No, not necessarily. There are plenty of musicians who… and I won’t name them (laughs)! No, it’s definitely possible to have a purely sort of emotional response and take on it, and still give an incredibly touching performance. One of the great examples, and still I think one of the great mysteries of our age, is Yehudi Menuhin. I knew him from the ages of thirteen to twenty-five, having attended his school and played some chamber music with him. If you go back to his recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, which was made when he was about thirteen or so, he was, of course, a boy who had led a full life. He was a prodigy and a bright young kid, but you couldn’t possibly say that he had read and experienced the great works of art, or had the profound thinking of Yehudi Menuhin at the age of seventy or eighty. Yet, that recording, for me, plumbs the depths and shows a complete mastery and understanding of the piece. Sometimes, results are achieved through experience, perseverance, and hard work; other times, it’s an emotional response. It’s not luck, chance, or necessarily a gift, but rather a natural feeling for something.
EH: Is there a little or lesser known composer whose works, you believe, deserve more attention ?
Watkins: Absolutely. I wouldn’t say he’s little-known - he’s perhaps a bit in the shadow of Benjamin Britten, this being his centenary year – but Michael Tippett (1905-1998) has yet to be appreciated as the genius and visionary that I believe he was. One of my dear wishes is to play the five string quartets of Tippett, and I hope I might be able to convince my new colleagues to play at least one of them (laughs).
EH: As the newest member of the Emerson Quartet, I’d love to hear the process of how you came to the decision to join them. How do you deal with the pressure of being the new cellist of a truly historic ensemble ?
Watkins: Yeah, I was prepared for that, and I was prepared for that by the other members of the quartet. This is quite inevitable when you step into the shoes of a great figure. David Finckel had been with the quartet for thirty-four years, and not only has he contributed as much as the other three have, but he’s contributed to chamber music across the country, as an originator of ideas, festivals, and education, etc. Those are very big shoes to fill, even if just on the playing-side of things!
In my teens, I was a huge fan of the Emerson Quartet, especially of their Bartok recordings, and I really don’t want to let them down now. I wanted to fit in with this amazing sound, this incredible way of playing, bringing whatever I have to offer, to perhaps move the quartet in another direction. When I say this – not to say that any of it was really planned - we were, all four of us, very open-eyed about the fact that a different player was going to make the quartet sound differently, and we’re all responding. My playing is changing too, and that’s sort of what takes the pressure off. Every time we sit down and rehearse, something new is happening, and I’m very privileged to be in this position.
EH: Over the years, what art forms have always captured your imagination or inspired your artistry ?
Watkins: The theater - acting is something I love, and I was drawn to it while studying at the Menuhin School. An inspirational English and drama teacher there, Kevin Jones, forced me… gently cajoled me – maybe not so gently (laughs) – into some of the school plays that he put on, which were quite ambitious at the time. I loved it, and it awakened a love of theater in me. I rush to do it, in the time-off that I simply don’t have at the moment (laughs).
EH: Please describe for us the Music@Menlo program that you’ll be performing this weekend:
Watkins: The program is, in equal measure, emotionally and intellectually challenging. The Haydn, Op. 20 No. 3 (1771) is very quirky and reveals what he was doing with the quartet form at the time: humor, darkness, incredible beauty in the slow movement. Haydn remains the master of quartet voicing and textures, and some of it is actually quite sparse, which relates to the Shostakovich, the Fourteenth, Op. 142 (1973), which is one of the last string quartets and dedicated to the cellist of the Beethoven Quartet in Russia. It has a very challenging, very beautiful cello part – recitatives, cadenzas, etc. – and the cello holds a lot of the thematic material, which is unusual for the cello. The Mendelssohn, No. 6 Op. 80 (1847), packs an emotional punch, the last string quartet, written as a raw, emotional distress to the death of his sister, Fanny. The slow movement is absolutely gorgeous.
EH: Mr. Watkins, thank you for taking the time.
Watkins: Thank you, Elijah. It was nice speaking with you!